The pedestrian bridge spanning Kearny Street between Chinatown's Hilton and Portsmouth Square Plaza is not ordinarily an active space. The bridge usually boasts a few people sunning themselves, a clandestine skateboarder or two. But just one day after the Chinese Culture Center (CCC) unveiled Sky Bridge by artist Beili Liu, the bridge swarmed with tourists, locals and a troupe of lion dancers, all there to bask in the dazzling effect of Liu’s month-long public installation.
Sky Bridge, the Austin-based artist’s second project for the CCC, is made of 50,000 brick-sized pieces of mirrored Mylar, each carefully glued to the bridge’s existing brick walkway and banked walls. Simple but transformative, Liu's installation makes the mundane magical. On sunny days, the CCC recommends sunglasses. On overcast days, the Mylar shines silver, gray and blue, resembling a watery surface over Chinatown’s busy thoroughfare.
The installation is the final element of the CCC’s multi-year Central Subway, Journey to Chinatown project, a series of temporary public art installations and performances celebrating the history of Chinese immigration and the arrival of San Francisco’s Central Subway.
CCC artistic director and curator Abby Chen says she wanted the series -- which included music and dance festivals, along with commissioned murals in Wentworth Alley and Walter U Lum Place -- to “bring awareness to the dire need for open space” in Chinatown.
“This is the second–highest-density neighborhood in the country,” Chen says. “The seniors and the children are really kind of trapped in their SROs, and Portsmouth Square is the only open space that we have. Hopefully people can really start to use the bridge, which was underutilized before.”
Sky Bridge came together over four days with the help of a legion of volunteers -- a true showing of community support for a project that expands beyond a “traditional” notion of art as object. The largest group of helpers came from Chinatown’s “Dancing Aunties,” women who dance to '50s and '60s Chinese pop music every morning and evening in Portsmouth Square.
“We asked them if they were interested in doing this project and they gladly accepted,” Chen says. “But at the time, no one knew what an undertaking it was, and the level of intensity of the labor. Plus, no one could predict the weather. That happened to be the hottest week.”
Through the combined efforts of CCC staff, a younger generation of Chinese Americans and the indefatigable Dancing Aunties, Sky Bridge opened to the public on Aug. 1. “This is the largest undertaking for the organization, ever,” says Chen. “But also the largest temporary public art in Chinatown.”
Over the next month, the Mylar “bricks” will fold and loosen, to be picked up by CCC staff as the Sky Bridge dissolves, bit by bit, and the underlying bridge is revealed. This is all part of the artist’s plan -- a graceful decay from glittering stream to ordinary path that will forever change the bridge’s relationship to the neighborhood and its occupants.
Focusing on community engagement and public feedback, the installation is a trial run for the CCC’s upcoming “Art on the Bridge” project, a larger commission of longer-term public art combined with landscaping that seeks to revitalize the Portsmouth Square pedestrian bridge in early 2016.
“I think that this project can help us learn so much about doing temporary art, temporary public art in Chinatown, or in the city,” says Chen. With Sky Bridge and future projects, Chen and the CCC hope to break the stereotype of Chinatown as a “conservative, traditional, insular” place.
Judging by the crowds after the bridge's reopening in early August, their efforts have worked. As locals and visitors alike stepped from Portsmouth Square onto Liu’s installation, curious and smiling, the feeling was anything but stodgy.